August 12, 2020

An unsustainable hunger for meat travels the world

Satisfying the growing hunger for meat in the world imposes a high environmental bill. A damaging bill in the form of greenhouse gases, groundwater pollution, massive deforestation, or toxic emissions to the atmosphere. An accelerated hunger in the richest countries that, in addition, is imitated by those who see their economic capacity increase.

The scale is overflowing. The craving for meat of more and more people has multiplied production by more than five since it reached 60 million tons in 1961. In 2018 it had grown to 336 million, according to FAO data. The number of animals and the extent of the land required for their breeding. The waste they produce and the crops to feed them and sustain this rate of consumption are the ecological toll.

Carnivorous escalation has its economic translation: the FAO price index for meat continues to rise. According to his calculation, for 2018 it was 70% higher than the average price between 2002-2004. The price of beef was doubled the same as that of sheep meat. Pig meat rose a third in that time – albeit with strong fluctuations.

That cocktail turns the meat, consumed in this way, into environmentally unsustainable, as reflected in the mildest scientific reviews of the International Panel of Experts on Climate Change – which called in September for a turnaround in the world diet – to the most daring, which they affirm. that a severe reduction is “essential” to avoid a climate disaster. “Of course, it is possible to achieve a sustainable level of world meat consumption. The point is that this level is much lower for many people. Especially the wealthy,” explains Oxford University researcher Hannah Ritchie.

Meat and the greenhouse effect

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are the cause of accelerated climate change. So many animals produce and release so many gases. And the world’s livestock releases about 8 gigatons, that is, 8,000 million tons of these GHGs. Half of these emissions are methane (CH4) and the rest are almost equal parts nitrous oxide (No2) and Co2. It is 15% of everything that is released each year. That is the direct climate price of producing huge amounts of animal protein.

Ruminant digestion is the main source of methane gas. Ruminants are cattle, sheep or horses. The technical name is enteric fermentation. The bovine herd releases around 3.5 gigatons of methane each year into the atmosphere. Methane is a gas with a great capacity for greenhouse effect, that is, to block the output of bounced solar radiation on the Earth’s surface into outer space.

That radiation remains, raising the temperature of the planet. Especially in the oceans, which absorb almost all excess heat. But CH4 works for a short time, around a decade. All in all, cows, whether for meat or milk, are the main source of these emissions.

However, almost as much gas as vaccine digestion, animal feed sends CO2 and NO2 into the atmosphere. Both gases extend their greenhouse effect hundreds of years. The expansion of grassland and feed crops and the use of agricultural fertilizers on those crops (which can be soy, palm or rice) are behind most of the carbon dioxide. In addition, animal manure emanates large amounts of methane and nitrous oxide.


Livestock farming on such a scale has resulted in a large consumption of land. Not only to obtain pastures but, also, to open fields to the cultivation of vegetables with which to feed the animals. Proven consequence? Deforestation of millions of hectares of forest. “Livestock farming is the main agent of deforestation in all Amazon countries,” concludes the Global Forest Atlas of Yale University. And he adds that “approximately 450,000 square kilometers of deforested Amazon in Brazil are now cattle pastures.” The surface of Spain is little more than all that land that was once jungle: 506,000 km2.

And it is not a question of the past. Only in the 12 months that were from July 2018 to July 2019, 9,762 km2 of jungle have disappeared, according to the calculation of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE). It has been a brutal acceleration. The highest rate since 2008, they have explained in this institution. Jair Bolsonaro’s own Brazilian government has acknowledged that most of the land that suffered the 2019 summer wildfire wave has ended up as livestock fields.

In fact, soon after the flames in the Amazon went out, rows of trucks were detected passing through the burned areas in Pará. “They are loaded with soy” on the way to nearby ports, denounces the Animal Equality organization that filmed the caravans. Soy and large-scale livestock are a pair that is closely linked.

I think, then soy

The animals we eat have to eat. And a good part of what cows or pigs feed on is feed. The manufacture of these products has also triggered the use of land that transforms it into, for example, huge soybean fields intended to fatten the cabins. World soybean production in 1987 was 100 million tons. In 2017 it had multiplied by more than three: 350 million, according to the United Soybean Board of the USA, almost 90% is dedicated to livestock feed.

This crop requires open space where to plant and harvest. The area dedicated to soybeans in 2003-2004 was just over 80 million hectares. In 2018 it exceeded 136 million. In Brazil, for example, in the year 2000, 14 million hectares were dedicated to this crop. For this year, the area occupied is 35 million, according to the Argentine Ministry of Production and Labor – another of the large producers – when analyzing the soybean market.

The loss of tropical forest to make room for meat needs exacerbates climate change. As the trees disappear, the CO2 that they retained in their organisms (accumulated over decades or centuries during which each specimen grows), is released into the atmosphere. More greenhouse gas to the air. And it already exceeds the amount of oxygen generated by these forests. Deforestation by itself accounts for one tenth of global emissions. Latin America is at the forefront of this phenomenon.

Contaminated aquifers

The intensive livestock farming model has led to a problem: what to do with animal waste? Huge amounts of manure. The depositions of dozens of animals concentrated in a small space have ended up becoming a source of contamination for the soil and water.

It is not someone else’s problem. In Spain alone, no less than 80 million tons of pig manure are generated. The European Commission opened a sanction file to Spain in November 2018 for this matter. 46% of the Spanish underground masses suffer from nitrous contamination of agricultural residues or manure from livestock farms, according to a list prepared by the Ministry of Ecological Transition.

The fluids that originate animal waste, when accumulated and managed poorly, end up draining into the aquifers. It is the large volume of liquid manure generated by intensive farms that has ended up contaminating the water, according to the Geological and Mining Institute of Spain. All the Spanish hydrographic basins are affected, although the points on the threat map huddle in areas where the growing pig farms are concentrated: Lleida or the Region of Murcia, for example. Spain leads the production of pigs in the European Union. The census is above 30 million heads, as recorded by the Ministry of Agriculture.


This intensive pig industry is a focus for the release of ammonia into the environment. A toxic gas with “serious environmental repercussions and, indirectly, for people’s health” as described by the European Union that has established an emission limit by country.

Becoming a power in the pig industry has more ecological consequences: Spain has not met the maximum threshold since it came into force in 2010. It emits around a third more than the 350,000 admissible tons. In the time that goes from that year 2010 to 2018, the national pig census has fattened five million heads while the emission limit was exceeded.

Ammonia acidifies ecosystems, making them unfeasible for life and is a precursor to the smallest microparticles, PM 2.5, which can penetrate into the bronchioles of human lungs.

Who stops eating meat?

In September 2019, scientists from the UN Panel of Experts on Climate Change (IPCC) called for the global diet to focus on foods that demand less energy and less water.

Last year, the largest study on food and sustainability to date was even clearer: humanity must eat less meat. Overall reduction: less beef, less pork, fewer chickens. “Options to keep the food system within environmental limits,” they called it. Thirteen institutions collaborated, including the universities of Oxford, Harvard, Madrid Polytechnic, California, Josh Hopkins, Minnesota, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change and the Washington Institute for Food Policy Research.

But who has to stop eating meat? The same is not consumed everywhere. The researcher Hannah Ritchie has shown this year that the desire for meat is a thing of the rich world.

Most western European countries have a meat consumption per year of between 80 and 90 kg per inhabitant. The average in Ethiopia is 7 kilos. In Rwanda 8 kilos or in Nigeria 9 kilos. The most outstanding: USA, Australia, Argentina and New Zealand widely exceed 100 kilos per inhabitant and year. And the data shows that when citizens in a country have more income, they start eating meat. In China, consumption in the 1960s was 5 kilos. Now it exceeds 60. In Brazil they have gone from 25 kilos to almost 100.

Hannah Ritchie concludes and completes that in impoverished countries meat consumption can rise. In fact, it is almost a mandate: “They could benefit from a higher intake since malnutrition is one of the biggest problems in these states.” Some lower and others increase. “This convergence between reduction in rich areas and some increase in poor areas is probably the fairest formula.”


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